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West Texas nuclear waste plan remains blocked after federal appeals court ruling

Waste Control Specialists
A view of an existing nuclear waste storage site in rural Andrews County, Texas. The site’s owners want to expand the facility to house more radioactive types of radioactive waste.

A years-long plan to ship some of the nation’s most radioactive types of nuclear waste to rural West Texas remains blocked after a ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court on Thursday declined to revisit its earlier decision throwing out a company’s federal license to ship “high-level” nuclear waste to a storage site in Andrews County, Texas.

That decision in August 2023 effectively killed the proposal by Interim Storage Partners to house used nuclear fuel from power plants across the U.S. at the existing Andrews County waste facility, on the Texas-New Mexico border.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission appealed the ruling, but the appeals court on Thursday rejected that appeal.

Texas officials have opposed the plan in court and at the state legislature, arguing in part that housing highly radioactive waste in the heart of the state’s Permian Basin oil field would threaten that industry and the nation’s energy security. Thursday’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by the state, and state lawmakers approved a measure blocking the plan in 2021.

Asked whether the NRC would appeal Thursday’s decision to the Supreme Court, a spokesperson said the commission is “reviewing the decision and will consider its options going forward.”

Interim Storage Partners did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, the advocacy group Beyond Nuclear praised the ruling, but noted that legal battles continue over a similar proposal from an energy technology company called Holtec that would involve shipping the waste to a site in southeastern New Mexico, just over the border from the West Texas site.

“The two dumps are very similar, and located only 40-some miles apart across the Texas/New Mexico border,” said Beyond Nuclear advocate Kevin Kamps. “How one could be legal, and the other illegal, is hard to reconcile.”

Federal regulators approved a license for the New Mexico plan in 2023. Beyond Nuclear and other groups have sued in an attempt to get that license thrown at as well, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to issue a ruling in the case.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.